by Neil McMahon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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Neil McMahon’s latest novel, LA Mental (Harper 2011), blurs the line between thriller and sci-fi with a fast-paced storyline, an everyman sort of main character, and amoral bad guys who right up to the last sentence, appear to be unstoppable. When you’ve finished, the plot will haunt you, so realistic is its potential, and every once in a while a newspaper story will make you ask if fiction has become reality.
The story’s hero, psychologist Dr. Tom Crandall, is dragged into a web of futuristic mind control in his effort to save his brother Nick from self-described ‘worms’ in his brain. When he tracks backward to see what happened to his offbeat-but-sane brother, he is infected with the same ‘disease’ and his family is threatened. As he digs deeper, he finds a genius ‘scientist’ who is experimenting with technology that can silently put any and everyone on the planet under his control. Crandall is not a detective, so his efforts are bumbling band-aids at best, reacting to events rather than controlling circumstances, but with a courage and tenacity readers can’t fail to respect.
McMahon does a deft job of weaving background into each early scene so we get to know the characters–to like Tom, wonder about his brother Nick’s morals and respect his mother’s strength in the face of her failed progeny. McMahon falls into some novice writing mistakes (too many adverbs, telling action as narrative rather than in scene), that are tolerable in good books like this one. By mid-book, I could no longer ignore the sci-fi overtones. I found these also in Tess Gerritson’s most recent book, so maybe it’s a new trend in thrillers. Just as it seemed to be too much, he pulled smartly back to a reality I understood. The ending, though, I didn’t find satisfying. Tom survives, though still at the mercy of the mind control menace, as does his family. He saves his girlfriend from death, though not an innocent bystander and he is unsuccessful in stopping the bad guys from infecting the world, as they do in the Epilogue. If you’re looking for that super-human hero, flawed but valiant, who saves the world at the price of his own well-being, this is not that story.
I have a confession: The character of Tom Crandall leaves me mildly unsettled. He tells us early and too often how much he hates the wealth and privilege that nurtured his childhood. We see how his siblings came to depend upon the money umbilical cord, even as Tom rejects it–he won’t work in the family businesses, he drives a beater, he walks away from his professional training as a psychiatrist in favor of teaching at a community college. I doubt that McMahon intended the political overtones that are impossible to miss in this era of anti-capitalist sentiment. He is not known for political novels. Still, those who favor that sentiment will enjoy its cameo appearance in this book.
Overall, if you like edgy fast-paced thrillers that force you to think about futuristic danger and keep you on the edge of your chair throughout, you’ll want to read LA Mental.
Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-fifth grade and creator of two technology training books for middle school. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy midshipman. She is webmaster for five blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, IMS tech expert, and a weekly contributor to Write Anything and Technology in Education. Currently, she’s working on a techno-thriller that should be ready this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.